Saturday, September 3, 2016

California, There I Come

California can--and has been said to--have a magnetic effect. Persons are drawn here by the lure of some mystical promise of satisfaction and the particular happiness of a California happiness. Other persons are so repelled by the aura and mystique of California that, even were they to come here for any time, they'd be doing so to draw upon the repellent life style and ambience.

You had no choice in the matter; you were born here. There was some thought of going to New York, not as a visitor but rather as the sort of migrant coming to California in search of a dream. That dream would be the Writing Dream which, over the years, has stepped forth to challenge the California Dream in range and intensity. You were already in California, and publishing, as you came to know it, was in New York.

Even though you were still in California, you often came to New York, and did so for reasons related to publishing. But are two events in your early years, let's call them your career years, which spoke to you through the illusions related to Writing Dreams and Publishing dreams, the first of which happened when you were with a New York publisher, representing them in California and, so the attendant sophistry said, the "entire"  Western states.

You had some publishing credibility, which is why you were hired "away" from a California publisher to "bring" a Western flavor to New York. You were also "fired," "let go," "not renewed" or such other euphemisms because of the not unnoticed irony of you having contracted too many books from California.

One afternoon, an early November heading-toward-Thanksgiving afternoon, when you were in New York, you'd stepped out of a building in mid Manhattan with a group of New York publishing cohorts into one of these New York late afternoons. The breeze was from the river.

A sense of place tinged with the smell of roasting chestnuts from street corner braziers and the garlic tang of Sabrett's hot dogs combined to produce awareness of time.  This was time for a drink or a chestnut or two or perhaps even a hot dog. This was a time when the afternoon was still too full of itself to consider being a part of late afternoon go-home.

You took a great gulp of the tangy afternoon. "Ah," you said.  In your mind, you were already heading for Columbus and Broadway in the bracing afternoon air of North Beach, San Francisco. "This is so very much like San Francisco."

Your cohorts responded to what must have been cognitive dissonance for them. "No," they explained, en masse. "San Francisco is so very much like this."

No further reflections were necessary, were they? Even though you had roots in New York, you were not of New York. You were of California. A few years later, you were given the opportunity to head a publishing venture well suited to your interests and abilities, but with the caveat, "There is a strong likelihood we will be moving the operation to New York in six months to a year. Please do not take our offer if you are unwilling to move." At the time of the offer, you'd been editor in chief of a venture whose ranks you'd managed to rise, more from curiosity than ambition, at a salary nearly half what you'd just been offered.

Your parents could well have remained in the New York area, but they were drawn by the magnetic promises of California. Since magnetism presents numerous unseen forces, perhaps some of those exerted on your parents had a small effect on you. New York, in all your earlier years, including your first-time experiences with it, was always "Back East" to you. Back. East.
When you set your foot into the Atlantic Ocean, the experience always brought otherness to you; it was not the Pacific, not your own ocean.

All these years, you've dreamed California dreams, mystical, populated with high and low deserts, sharp, notional drop-offs along the coast, places for being lost, places now lost to interrupted dreams, ghost towns.

There are uncounted miles of it you've yet to see, places which resonate within you as unfathomable and politically, culturally unknowable, but they are California and you have dreams of visiting them as well as all the places within this state of dream, reality, and terra incognita.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Bad Reception out There

Many of us who earn our living in one way or another--writing, editing, teaching, for instances--through our use of words are alert to which words draw what kinds of attention, when to use certain words instead of others, and how, throughout history, certain words have taken on meanings previously deemed unthinkable. 

In much the same manner musicians select a particular key, say D minor or F sharp, or B flat, in which to set a composition, users of words are adept at choosing from an array of possibilities to supplement the payoff effect they have in mind.

Words and their effects are heard, read, overheard, repeated; they are texted, printed, faxed. The total effect of them, when it arrives, results in the matter at hand here: the past participle of the verb to receive. 

Words are, indeed, received. Often, words are of such a nature as to make them well received or poorly received. The absence of words having any effect, much less the desired one, equates to those words having for all intents and purposes fallen on deaf ears.

For your own, continuing part in this parade and destination of words, you speak and write in received standard English, often doing so after you have received an inspiration or challenge for some individual response. You proceed with the unspoken but no less significant hope they will not fall on deaf ears or cause the eyes to blink or skip. You are hopeful of , worst case scenario, engaged recognition, by which is meant an openness to consideration.

When a letter is sent, then delivered, the letter has been accepted, which is a good word to link with received. Your message, having been received, is accepted. Next comes the more difficult part. How does the recipient feel about  the contents? 

You, at the moment, are disappointed by the narrative of a book, written by an author you had previous admiration for; her work, although it appears to have been well received by a number of critics, although greeted with enthusiasm by you for the first several pages, has now devolved into a situation where you have some difficult decisions to make.

In your time, you've gone to many receptions, which is to say gatherings, the purpose of which was to accept and exchange greetings and ideas with one or more individuals. Indeed, on occasion, you've been the one or among the ones for whom the reception or gathering was initiated. Were you a football player of a certain sub-culture, you'd be rated by, among other things, the number of your receptions, or passes caught.

More than once, someone has, using an expression in rapid retreat from contemporary use, asked you if you got his or her drift, a euphemism for asking if you received the full, unambiguous meaning of something they'd said to you. 

More than once a publisher has informed you it has received your submission or, in cases where you have been invited to send something, your manuscript, and more often than you're comfortable recalling, there were times when you heard by mail or phone from certain individuals informing you they have not received a payment, the nature of which was made even more clear to you than it had been when you first neglected to send the payment prompting the notice.

Within the world of electronic communication, you're with some frequency offered the opportunity to check here if you no longer wish to receive these or any other messages from "us." Within the broader world of reality, there is received wisdom, which is in general a code for common sense or the wisdom of a particular culture or philosophy.

Much of the time, a conversation that begins with an acknowledgment of the receipt of something you sent augurs well for a satisfactory if not outright outstanding outcome. Conversations beginning with the announcement of nothing being put forth by you seem to lead in the opposite direction, where words outlining an ultimatum or a growing severity of disappointment are not the best word choices for insuring that you have a happy day.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Lux Fiat, Lux Electrat

A dear and cherished friend was explaining to you one fateful afternoon why the twelve-step recovery program at AA would not be effective for him because, as he put it, "I don't believe in such a thing as God and to work the twelve-step program, one needs a higher power. So AA is off for me, don't you see?"

I saw his argument as a way of digging in his heels, saying AA would not work, and, thus, he remained, as the good folk of AA would say, powerless to control his drinking problems. This had the unspoken argument that he may, then, as well continue drinking.

We were dealing with equations meant to work out at the sort of undeniable logic or, if you will, truth that 1 + 1 = 2 provides.  "Try this," you suggested.  "The higher power to which you can tether everything need not be spiritual or religious, correct?"

When he nodded, suspiciously (he was a skilled performer, thus able to convey suspicion is the mere-ness of a nod), you said, "Try the belief that whenever you walk into a darkened room and flip the wall switch, some light or other will go on."

"But suppose the electricity in the building is out."

"How many times in your life have you walked into a darkened room, flicked a switch, then had no response?"

"Few," he said. "Nevertheless."

"A higher power that worked for you most of the time would not be a bad place to start."

"But there is also the matter of burned-out light bulbs."

"Ah," you said, "you're really looking for something infallible. Even those with higher powers tethered to God admit that God may be omnipresent but also too busy to stop you the next time you think you can drink with impunity. And wasn't it you who said 'Nothing's perfect.'?"

"Well, yes, but that was for writing," he said, and for a moment, it seemed to you he'd had you in this logic-based equivalent of an arm wrestle. But then you said, "Except that in writing, you could write your way out of wanting another drink or so, then thinking you could stop right there."

This was not only based on a true story, as such fictional versions of true stories are so fond of saying, this was a true story, during the course of which your friend not only lived out the balance of his life sober, he sponsored with some vigor those who chose to build a sense to their lives in which there was no use of alcoholic beverages.

These paragraphs of description represent various aspects of sense in operation, all of them based on the metric of sense having a direct relation to logic. In other words, a thing or system that "makes sense" is also a thing or system that's logical. Algebra, for instance, is logical; only when illogical aspects are introduced does it not make sense.

With little effort, you could compile a laundry list of "things" or systems that are constituents of equations which lead to a product of sense or logic. You could also make a laundry list of irrational things, false equivalencies or components that do not produce a logic as logic is known in reality.

There are objects, symbols, and systems in story that make sense within the framework of a particular story, but may spring a few leaks of plausibility, sense, or logic when transported to reality. Thus we have an end result often referred to in reality as poetic justice, and within story, it becomes dramatic justice.

Poetic justice is based on the conventions, rather than logic, of a culture. Dramatic justice is an awareness of completion or closure within a story. Of course story is based on the conventions of a particular culture. This leaves you to the awareness of the need to find your way in both worlds in which you have a foot planted, the world of reality, and the world of story.

Much in the manner of your dear, departed chum, you find yourself during your ventures in both worlds, looking for for guiding principal, some higher power, some building somewhere, in which, lux fiat, there will be light most of the time you flick the wall switch.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Future Imperfect as Verb Tense and Existential Reality

Writing in the current issue of The American Scholar, the novelist and sometime essayist, Amitav Ghosh, along with possible help from an uncredited editor-caption writer, asks about the consequences of future generations of fiction readers make of the failure of contemporary novelists to address what he calls the crisis of climate change.

From your own readings of Ghosh's fiction, notably The Circle of Reason, and to a lesser extent, The Hungry Tide, you have sufficient cause to believe he is a significant and devoted reader. You do not consider his (or the caption writer's) use of the word "crisis," hyperbole nor indeed of the hysteria-producing rhetoric often found in sources whose default more likely than not relies on exaggeration to attract readers.

Ghosh's essay is excerpted from a work of nonfiction due to appear as a book within the next weeks, further distancing it from the kinds of text and headlines for publication on the Internet and, thus, measurable for the number of "hits" or pages read associated with hyperbolic headlines and shock value.

Ghosh impresses you as a writer with a writer's conscience, which is to say a writer who is concerned with the resident issues of his time, caste system within the global sense, and who demonstrates the conscience of a writer. 

In this regard, your thesis herewith, without diminishing your own concern for the climate, which you acknowledge to be a worthwhile issue. Your thesis begins with the awareness that most of the writers whose works you've valued over the years tend to wrap their narratives of fiction and fact about the armature of a time and place, often (but not necessarily) sharpening their focus on some local or global issue of a broad, general urgency. 

Perhaps the writer is not as aware of the downstream aspects of the narrative as we, as readers and all the I Told You So of the Monday Morning quarterback, would appreciate.

Your thesis goes forth to believe how human life is, within your space within a bubble, populated with individuals whose awareness of crises and emergencies are spread thin with modern life. They may care about such issues as climate change, migration, and racial injustice, but only as spectators at the likes of one of the more contact prone sports, from the watching of which they may wonder about the ability of the human body to endure such impacts on a regular basis without suffering future consequences as well as the more immediate ones of, say, concussion.

Writers, whether knowingly or not, choose topics and characters from a menu of their own concerns and experiences.For every Rachel Carson of blessed Silent Spring memory, countless other writers are prescient only so far as their awareness of the issues of the moment allow.

We may read works from the past with bewilderment at how "they," those of the past, could not know, how, for instance, they could have been serious in their belief in the scientific reliability of phrenology, those aspects of spiritism that included seances, trance mediums, and contacts with"the other world." Even today, the equivalent of evoking the pro/con ire at hand for the discussion of climate change is to speak to or against the efficacy and reliability of astrology.

Some years ago, you indulged yet another argument about related matters with Sidney Kimmelman, ne Sidney Omar, the astrologer whose daily column was in wide circulation.  "Watch out, Virgo," he'd say at such times, "You're running off at your critical worst." Then he'd grow more thoughtful. "You do know there's big money in it, don't you?"

And then his, and your partner in a magazine venture, Borderline: The Magazine That Dares the Unknown, Henry Miller, was wont to say, "There's big money in anything if you're willing to exploit it."

The thing holding contemporary writers back from a more prescient focus of the future is the extent of their vision of the immediate present and its denizens.  Sometimes when the time of night, weather and atmospheric  conditions here in Santa Barbara allow you an awe-inspiring awareness of the starry skies, or those times when you are in deserts or other remote areas and bedazzled by the spectral view, you have brief, sobering moments of wonder.

Which of those lights you're seeing had their origins at stars who are long dead?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Individual as an Ensemble

An actor lives to portray a variety of other individuals. Some actors, in live performances, may even "double," or portray more than one person in a single venture. 

Among your favorite actors at the moment is the English performer, Mark Rylance, who, in various roles, has been the female lead of Twelfth Night, a friendly giant in BFM, a filmed version of Roald Dahl's story for young readers, a Russian spy in the film, The Bridge of Sighs,  and Thomas Cromwell, confidante and minister to Henry (Tudor)VIII in Hilary Mantel's epic Wolf Hall.

There have been times when you have wished to undergo the training that might make you an actor, if only to more understand and appreciate the diversity of emotions and techniques that go into acting. On some occasions, you have performed as an actor, the outcome of happy coincidence.

Unless an actor has achieved a significant status, the need to audition for a part is as commonplace as putting on makeup. Some higher authority, a director or producer, must be convinced of the actor's ability to fit a particular role and as well to engage other actors in the same production with a high degree of chemistry, a portmanteau word for the qualities of engagement, spontaneity, and plausibility.

All those times in which you've argued how any individual at any given time becomes in fact a composite of selves, representing a spectrum of emotional and cultural selves, you were well aware of the rather large ensemble cast residing within your person.

This brings you to a place where you experience the same fraught and suspenseful moments when an actor auditions for a part, not just any part, but a desired, coveted one.  

Your own auditions are often conducted without preparation, perhaps even without any thought at all. Nevertheless, there you are, from time to time, wanting to do well, wanting to be the best you possible, wanting to be extended to a quality of performance you've never reached before.

Who, in effect, gets the role? Is it the brash, super confidant seventeen-year-old you? Is it the aspect of yourself you refer to as Built-in Cynic? Is it the Inner Critic, who has fond fault with so many of your ideas and ventures?

Such questions are not mere frivolity or exaggeration; these are questions you ask on occasions of retrospect, where you process the fact that you might have given the role to an aspect of you that got the job done, but now, you wish to bring to events even more appropriate and vigorous characters who will bring confidence, lightheartedness, and empathy to the audition.

Monday, August 29, 2016

End Game

Not long after one of your recent ruminations about the endings you'd encountered in the first wave of books and stories you'd read, which nudged you forward to consider the types of endings you prefer now in the things you read and, not without surprise, the things you write, you came upon a remarkable film clip from a film dating back to the silent days.

In the film clip were two actors you'd known better as performers in the films of your youth, in which there was indeed a sound track. In this particular clip, a young John Barrymore sat disconsolate at a table, ravaged by age and regret, the spirit beginning to lift from him and, thus, signifying how we were observing him at the moment of his death. 

At that moment, his image seemed young, ardent, handsome. Across the room, the spirit of an individual portrayed by Mary Astor. Even when you saw her, in her middle age, as Brigid Shaughnessy, in The Maltese Falcon, she didn't merely radiate beauty and stature, she exuded it.

The two spirits in the film clip before you meet, embrace, seem to melt into one another for a long, poignant moment before they drift off together to eternity, the embodiment--no pun here--of the romantic happy ending and, indeed, one you could see for your parents.

This film clip reminded you of a number of other films in which the ghosts reunite or gather to greet one who has recently crossed over the metaphoric rainbow bridge, separating those of us who live from those who await us "on the other side."

How then could this not remind you of a pair of adverts from Facebook, one in which you are offered the opportunity to buy a commemorative bracelet honoring your furry pals who have preceded you over the rainbow bridge and who surely will greet you on your own venture across that span. The other linked some wind chimes outside a cemetery dedicated to animals. 

You could, by pressing a button, hear the wind chimes which, presumably, would tug at your heart strings to the point where you donated to some animal memorial fund and the almost certain happy ending knowledge that your own friends, Sam, Edward, Blue,Jed, Armand, Molly, Sally, and Goldfarb would gather to greet you on your own venture into the dark hole of eternity.

Happy endings thus assure you of the connective tissue that binds you to those you care for and, even against your contrary beliefs, the prospect of some sense of awareness in which you will experience belonging to the universal elements, their governing forces, and the qualities that govern them.

In the happy-ending movie, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a down-on-her-fortunes widow is forced to a remote cottage, now haunted by the ghost of its former-but-still-irascible owner, a one-time captain of a merchant vessel. The ghost and the widow not only meet, the ghost dictates his memoirs to the widow, who publishes them, earns enough royalty to get by and raise her children in comfort. When the widow's time to cross the bridge arrives, who is there, waiting for her? And of course they stroll off to their destiny hand in hand. No sex in the other world, but jolly good company.

Unless there is some unaccountable traumatic event in the immediate future, you see no Rainbow Bridge beckoning you, which condition may, with proper deliberation, provide a story for you. At the moment, your own preferences for endings are neither happy nor laden with the heavy blankets of noir, rather then of some irony in which:

1. An individual whom you will portray as a loner yet by no means a misanthrope, is led by circumstances to a maze garden, becomes lost, attempts to peer through a hedge for some directional clue, only to meet the inquiring eyes of another being.

2. An individual who voluntarily opts into an assisted-living facility the, in the act of sorting out his few remaining belongings, discovers a box of correspondence from the former occupant, all letters unsent over the years, addressed to him.

3. An individual every bit as convinced as you about any activity subsequent to the individual's death, awakening as if from a dream, finding himself in what appears to be a park, a park with a name such as Bridgeway, persistently followed by a dog of the breed and sort you find least attractive, bearing a collar with a name tag of the sort you would never give a dog, and with an ID on the collar listing you and your last address as its owner and place of residence.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Cut to the Chase

At one time in your childhood in the greater Los Angeles area, there were at least three movie theaters which bore the name The Hitching Post. The one most convenient for your purposes was the on in the 6200 block of Hollywood Boulevard, which could be achieved by a ten-cent bus ride on either the La Brea or Fairfax Avenue routes.

In time, The Hitching Post in Santa Monica became convenient thanks to the fact of your father having command of what was called The Boulevard Luggage Shop and which actually sold luggage and repaired old steamer trunks as a blind for various activities related to the outcome of horse races or the turn of a card in a wild farrago of a game favored by Fillipino chefs and line cooks.

Clearly The Hitching Post theaters stir the gumbo of nostalgia; look at how you place them, roughly between the years of 1940 and 1950, where the menu, as the title suggested, was Western movies in a steady stream. 

You could--and did--enter when the theaters opened at ten of a morning, and could remain all day, confident you'd be seeing different films, with no repetitions.

Of course they were awful, but they were Westerns, each of which had an element that prompted this memory in the first place.  What's a Western film without a chase? Hence the expression, "Cut to the chase," or, "Get on with the reason we're here."

Another similar expression, which has no such glamorous association as The Hitching Post Theaters, is an equivalent of "Cut to the chase," in this case as "the bottom line," as in "What's the bottom line?" or "How much is it going to cost?" and with even greater effect, "How much is it going to cost me?" usually asked of one or more of his children by a father.

The chase in the Western movie was a posse of good guys, in pursuit of a gang or bad guys. The bottom line, as it referred to cost or the final, crucial decision, means an acknowledgment of what issues or matters are at stake in this immediate transaction.

Both the chase and bottom line have reference to story, which always has a pursuit of some sort and a reckoning, a price to be paid or a prize to be won. Life is not nearly so clear because life is filled with a plethora of details and diversions unrelated to the task at hand. 

The moment we begin to consider story, we begin the drudgery of editing out the details and elements connecting the characters and their agendas. One question you're fond of asking yourself, when times come to revise something you're working on, or to students when you're teaching lit courses or to writers when you're teaching writing classes: Can this story do without this detail? Is this scene vital to the story or is it a red herring?

A significant reason for the popularity of story is the bottom line of there always being a chase and some price to be paid.